One of the hottest young stars of the 90’s, Shannon Elizabeth, set teen hearts aflutter with her portrayal of Nadia, the gorgeous foreign exchange student in the “American Pie” movies. Based on her looks and popularity, she could have easily found success focusing on film and television roles for years to come, but her heart took her in a much different direction—protecting, saving and fighting for the lives of animals.
Elizabeth’s organization, Animal Avengers, has grown from a modest LA-area rescue facility to a large-scale organization fighting to protect animals on an international scale. We spoke to Shannon Elizabeth and asked her about her passion and her vision for Animal Avengers.
PawCulture: Have animals always been a big part of your life?
Shannon: I grew up in Texas, and there would always be dead armadillos and dead squirrels and things like that on the road. Every time I’d see a dead animal, I would scream bloody murder. My mom would brake, thinking she was about to hit a child. I would be crying and say there was a dead animal. It’s just something I was born with. I’ve always been this way with animals.
PawCulture: Your organization, Animal Avengers, started as something different than what it is now. What was the original plan, and where did the idea come from to start it up?
Shannon: When we decided to form the organization it was a dog and cat rescue. I figured I had to start small. I had to start with animals I knew and then I could work my way up. So for ten years it was a dog and cat rescue in Los Angeles, and it went through many growth spurts. We started with one other rescuer, who came on board with us, and we grew to having a whole rescue facility that was gifted to us.
Last year I became very aware of the poaching crisis in Africa, so I started looking into that, and something clicked within me when I saw a video of a poached elephant. It was just one specific video that just put me over the edge and I said, “This is what I need to do with the charity. I need to find ways that I can help. I don’t know what that looks like yet. I need to go over there and see—understand the problem, see what people are doing, and see where they need help.”
PawCulture: How did you get involved? Is there a specific instance that stands out in your mind?
Shannon: I spent a lot of time in South Africa. A lot of people are aware of Hope, the rhino that, last year, had her face hacked off. A team of vets with Saving the Survivors were trying to do [facial reconstructive] surgery that had never been done before. They asked for fracture kit. A lot of their work is very groundbreaking and we were able to buy this fracture kit for them.
I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people all over Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa. I’ve made two trips out there so far. I’m planning on moving there by the end of the year. About eighty to ninety percent of the world’s rhino are in Kruger, and because Kruger is a national park it’s hard to put protections in place or try to make change. That’s going to be my purpose. I feel like I need to be out there to make that happen.
PawCulture: How undereducated would you say American society is about all of these issues? A lot of us just assume that the animals are, for the most part, okay out there. Is this something that is largely unknown to us?
Shannon: I would probably say about 99 percent of Americans have no idea what’s going on out there.
Right now we are losing an average of 96 elephants a day and 4-6 rhino a day to illegal poaching, and it’s because ivory and rhino horns are so valuable on the black market. If we don’t educate [people] that it shouldn’t be valuable, and it’s shameful to have it, then the killing is going to continue.
PawCulture: What are some of the ways that people who are reading this can help?
Shannon: I think you have to do your research and understand what’s going on, because it does affect you in a profound way. Make yourself watch some of the videos that are out there. There are so many people who say “I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see a poaching video,” but you have to because if you don’t, it doesn’t make the killing stop.
Obviously, anything you can do to help charities doing good work over there is really important. The programs that people are putting in place cost a lot of money. The research that some people are doing takes equipment. People in Africa and South Africa just don’t have the resources we do here, so they desperately need our help.
I think you have to pick the cause that touches your heart the most. Whether it’s a specific animal, whether it has to do with poaching, or maybe with SeaWorld, or children—whatever it is, you just have to pick a cause that you believe in. Everything is important.
All photos courtesy Animal Avengers and Shannon Elizabeth.